The Forgotten Founding Father
Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture
by Joshua Kendall
Putnam’s, 368 pp., $26.95
The subtitle of this welcome biography of Noah Webster links what the author calls Webster’s “obsession” with the “creation of an American Culture.” Although Webster has been the subject of several biographies—the most substantial and comprehensive being Harlow Unger’s Noah Webster: The Life and Times of an American Patriot (1998)—Joshua Kendall aims to introduce Webster to a “broad reading public” that knows him as little more than a famous name. He is convinced also that Unger, in the lines of previous writers about Webster, presents too idealized a portrait of the man. Instead, Kendall sees him, like his great predecessor Samuel Johnson, as prey to “intractable” mental distress which, in the language of modern psychiatry, Kendall calls an “obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.” According to the biographer, Webster’s “crippling interpersonal anxiety” from childhood on was essential to his composing not only the dictionary and the phenomenally popular Spelling Book, but numerous other publications on a surprising variety of subjects—enough to make him a more than plausible addition to the founders of American culture.
If one shrinks a bit from the all-too-available vocabulary of personality disorders and interpersonal anxieties, Kendall doesn’t ride these horses too hard but provides an objectively toned and sympathetically rendered account of Webster’s astonishing career. He begins with a portrait of the 27-year-old graduate of Yale who has just published Sketches of American Policy, recommendations on how the newly emerging republic should conduct itself, and who is visiting the retired General Washington at Mount Vernon. Kendall has the clever idea of heading each chapter with a definition from the dictionary Webster would eventually write: For his prologue, “George Washington’s Cultural Attaché: The Definer of American Identity,” he singles out Webster’s definition of “American.”
A native of America; originally applied to the aboriginals, or copper-colored races, found here by the Europeans; but now applied to the descendants of Europeans born in America. The name American must always exalt the pride of patriotism. Washington.
When, 15 years later, after Washington’s two-term presidency and his death, Webster failed to be named official biographer of his hero, he began instead the longer but more rewarding task of what an unfriendly critic would refer to as “Noah’s Ark,” the 70,000-word American Dictionary of the English Language.
What many have failed to realize, including your reviewer, was the range and extent of Webster’s activities prior to the dictionary’s appearance in 1828. He grew up in what was known as the West Division of Hartford, Connecticut, was close to neither of his parents, studied at Yale under its future president Timothy Dwight, was friends with Joel Barlow (a member of what came to be known as the Connecticut Wits), and under Barlow’s influence hung around, in Kendall’s words, with “a fast crowd that chased women, drank and swore.” Hard to believe, but later on he abandoned a plan to make an anthology of English poets because too many of them employed undesirable language. One of these was John Dryden, about whom Webster found it “mortifying” that the poet should “regale the libidinous with his translations of Theocritus and Lucretius which I read when at college and which are vade mecums for a brothel.” Such words, uttered with typical Websterian severity, suggests why urbanity is the word that least fits him.
When war broke out with England, he, his father, and two brothers joined the Revolutionary militia; he graduated from Yale in 1778, after which his father declared he could give him no further economic support. Unmoored, Noah spent a good many hours reading Johnson’s Rambler essays while deciding to become a lawyer. For awhile he taught students at an elite Hartford school while assisting a lawyer and reading law after hours. The strain proved too much, and Webster suspended his studies in the face of what his earlier biographer, Unger, thinks was an “undefined illness . . . probably influenza.” Kendall opts for a more dramatic psychic breakdown, calling it “acute depression and anxiety,” while comparing Webster’s plight to that of Dr. Johnson, who at age 20, according to Boswell, experienced something similar. Like Johnson, Webster pulled out of the depths by committing himself to a life of writing that would lead to a great work of lexicography.
What provided Webster with the funds necessary to undertake and carry out the dictionary enterprise was the fabulous success of his rewriting of a widely used 18th-century speller by the Englishman Thomas Dilworth. Webster’s redoing of Dilworth was pitched toward American children, limiting itself to commonly used terms and differing from Dilworth by grouping together monosyllabic words that sounded alike (bug, dug, hug, lug, mug, tug) and proceeding to words of more than one syllable. English and Irish place names were replaced by a list of the American states, important towns, and counties. There is a parallel, notes Kendall, with the recent political revolution: Just as the American military had taken on the tyrannical British government, the American literati, Webster felt, now had to strike out against the unwieldy British language, bringing order to chaos. Originally named rather formidably A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, the most significant section was renamed The American Spelling Book, a volume that over the next century would sell more copies than any book except the Bible.
Webster’s lifetime friend, Timothy Pickering, who would become Washington’s secretary of state, stayed up all night reading the Spelling Book and reported to his wife that “the time will come when no authority as an English grammarian will be superior to [Webster’s] own.” A few years later, after hearing Webster lecture, and in a passage Kendall doesn’t quote, Pickering wrote to his nephew:
With respect to Mr. Webster, you must have noticed that with a competent share of good sense, he possessed a quantum sufficit of vanity . . . [and] so much of egotism, especially in a young man . . . as to prevent his hearers receiving the satisfaction that might otherwise have been derived from many ingenious observations.
Webster was “not known for his playfulness,” Kendall observes in an understatement: “I do not remember to have seen him smile,” testified a young man who delivered page proofs of the dictionary to him. Webster disposed of Shakespeare by admitting his genius but noting in him “the grossest improprieties” and that “his language is full of errors, and ought not to be offered as a model for imitation.” This habit of vilification, of which Kendall takes full note, had its milder version when, after asking a boy loitering whether his mother didn’t want him at home, Webster hired the boy to pick up the stones from the road in front of his house (payment 12-and-a-half cents an hour).
The sweep of his activities and publications is mind-boggling. A brief enumeration includes editorship of a literary magazine and newspaper, lectures on copyright law, and his stimulation of a national census by personally counting the houses in various American cities. In response to an epidemic of yellow fever he produced A Brief History of Epidemic and Pestilential Diseases, consisting of 700 pages, later termed by William Osler as the most important medical work written in America by a layman. In his spare time, as it were, he fell “madly in love” (Kendall’s hard-to-believe words for it) with Rebecca Greenleaf, married her, and sired seven children whom he treated with some austerity. While at work on the dictionary he became a devout Calvinist, and after moving from New Haven to Amherst, became a founder of Amherst College.
Meanwhile, the great work was proceeding, first by publication of a Compendious Dictionary (“compendious” meaning short) as a trial run for the longer work. Here Kendall, because of the scope of his book, simply doesn’t have the space to do full justice to its composition, and interested readers should seek out David Micklethwait’s Noah Webster and the American Dictionary for a fascinating account of the operation. Micklethwait points out that it was a great advance in lexicography, “not because Webster defined so well, but because he defined so widely,” the result being thousands of artistic and scientific terms hitherto available only in specialist dictionaries. Kendall notes that while Webster set out to replace, even to “slay,” Dr. Johnson (his own dictionary would contain 12,000 more words than his predecessor’s), a third of his definitions demonstrate Johnson’s influence.
Webster’s Third Dictionary now sells better in its Web-based venue than in copies of the printed book, but the Collegiate Dictionary, which has sold 56 million copies since 1898, will see a new edition in 2013. Kendall assures us that the company is keeping up to date with the language and has recently included such additions as “chick flick,” for which we can all be grateful.
William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College.